Florence Foster Jenkins: a curious concert at Carnegie Hall

Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall: one of the world's greatest stages.Image by Jeff Goldberg / Esto


Carnegie Hall Museum Director and Archivist Gino Francesconi talks about Florence Foster Jenkins

7:10


August 12, 2016

It's an interesting pattern Carnegie Hall museum director and archivist Gino Francesconi has noticed ever since he founded the hall's archives 30 years ago. "When people call here for research," he says, "if you count the top-five or the top-10 most-requested events that we've had here — sometimes it's Benny Goodman, sometimes it's the Beatles, sometimes it's Judy Garland — but almost always, it's Florence Foster Jenkins."

Florence Foster Jenkins was an early 20th-century arts patron who made a name within New York's arts circles for her philanthropy. "When she inherited the money from her father and she and her mother moved to New York, one of the ways that women could enter society was to join music clubs," Francesconi says. "One by one, she joined them, and she was welcomed because she had money, and she supported musicians, she supported productions at the Metropolitan Opera."

Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins, known for her lack of skill as a singer, photographed in the 1920s.
Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

But Jenkins had musical aspirations of her own. As a child, Francesconi says, Jenkins had been a prodigious piano player, but had suffered an arm injury that hampered her playing. After eloping into what became a failed marriage and eventually becoming the beneficiary of her father's estate, Jenkins resumed her music pursuits by beginning voice lessons at age 40. Despite never gaining proficiency as a singer (and that's putting it kindly), Jenkins made her debut at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 25, 1944. This unlikely story is now the subject of a new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.

Jenkins booked her own concert at Carnegie Hall. "One of the most wonderful things about Carnegie Hall is the continuum of what Andrew Carnegie said at the laying of the cornerstone in 1890, which was, 'All causes may here find a place; we hope they're good causes, but it's not for us to judge'," Francesconi says. "That meant that anyone could pick up the phone, and if a date was available, the hall was yours. After you paid us the rental fee and whatever other things you required, the rest was now up to you, and so you could have in the space of a month, political rallies, authors reading from their works, and you could have Horowitz there and the Berlin Philharmonic, but you could also have a stockholders' meeting — and Florence Foster Jenkins."

A well-worn saying maintains the way to get to Carnegie Hall is "practice, practice, practice," and the many private recitals and recording sessions Jenkins had done prior to her appearance on the Carnegie Hall stage certainly qualify. Her lack of singing ability, however, turned her Carnegie recital into something else entirely. "The stories had been floating around town for 15 years that 'You really need to hear this woman sing,' or 'not sing'," Francesconi explains. "So when the tickets went on sale, people just ran to get the tickets — as they did with Horowitz or anybody else — but in this particular case, in their way of thinking, it was almost like a comedy show, but she in her own mind didn't realize that."

Program for Florence Foster Jenkins, 1944
Concert program for a recital by soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, October 25, 1944.
Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives

A sold-out crowd comprised Jenkins' friend and those there for the spectacle. As the tone-deaf Jenkins proceeded with her concert, laughter burst forth from the audience. Jenkins' friends, meanwhile, tried to cover the laughs with applause, even screams. "So Florence Foster Jenkins would hear these people screaming, and it just encouraged her," Francesconi says.

The charade ended when reviews were published the next day. "Horrific," Francesconi says. "The story is that the reviews devastated her. It was the first time she ever read, in print, what people thought of her."

Many attribute Jenkins' death, one month later, to these scathing reviews, but that remains apocryphal. "You have to keep in mind, this woman had had syphilis for 60 years [contracted from her ex-husband] and had been treated with mercury and arsenic, and she was 76," Francesconi says. "The interesting thing is that some of the critics just devastated her and said, 'This is the worst joke ever perpetrated on the New York audience,' and another critic said, 'Yeah, she made $4,000 on that recital, so the joke's on us'."

Francesconi says Jenkins' recital raises questions about the nature of friendship. "Part of this story, as depicted in the movie with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, is the fact that they kept the fact that she couldn't sing from her," Francesconi says. "And so I ask, 'Why didn't anybody tell her? Why did they allow her to keep making a spectacle of herself?'

"But, on the other hand," he continues, "sometimes people have the personality where they don't care. They just need to be in front of the public."

Regardless of raucous laughter or wretched reviews, Jenkins is still remembered. "What made her important in her day, or at least we should be grateful — I don't know if the word 'important' applies — but she supported the arts," Francesconi says. "And that's the baseline of all this: the arts need supporting; they needed it then and they need it now.

"She was a contributor to the continuum of art and culture in New York City."

The film, Florence Foster Jenkins, opens Aug. 12, 2016.